The body, the soul & the prayer before Communion

In Missal Moments III, in my innocent enthusiasm, I spent some time trying to explain the changes to the prayer at Mass we make before the reception of Holy Communion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Often, and most recently at a talk I gave at a parish in Essex, people ask in particular why the apparently restrictive introduction of “soul” into the prayer. Before we had prayed, “and I shall be healed”. Some have begun to think that some sort of dualism is being secreted into the Mass, that somehow the Church thinks our bodies not worthy of healing, only our souls. Is this some sort of snub to the fullness of our humanity?, they wonder.

Part of my explanation was to expose the unconscious fallacy in people’s thinking when they suspect a denial of the bodiliness of humanity in this revised prayer. So many people think of the human body as somehow containing a soul, that the soul lies, as it were, in the deepest recesses of the body. Or perhaps they see it as one half of the human equation: body + soul = human person. Now that equation is not wrong in a sense, but put in those terms it is a little misleading.

Regarding the human person this common way of thinking is actually the reverse of what it is true. In reality, the soul contains the body, and the body is an expression and manifestation of the soul in time and space. Thus to heal the soul is to heal the entirety of the human person, including the body that is the soul’s physical expression.

All that wind I expended. If only I had re-read some C S Lewis recently! It took Facebook to remind me of something C S Lewis, in Mere Christianity, had said more pithily and directly and memorably than I did or could.










10 thoughts on “The body, the soul & the prayer before Communion

  1. Father,

    Doesn’t Lewis’s explanation sit rather uncomfortably with the Catholic doctrine that the soul is the form of the body?

    In particular, one might recall, from his commentary on 1 Corinthians, St. Thomas’s:

    “Anima autem cum sit pars corporis hominis, non est totus homo, et anima mea non est ego”

    (…but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man, and my soul is not I; tr. Larcher)


  2. Thanks Gregory.

    Let me think a little further on what you have written. Thomas is someone who needs to be read with care, so that is what I must do myself in this case.

    Certainly there is a richness in the Catholic concept of the soul. In the Catechism we find the statement that in Scripture “the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person.” (#363) However the Catechism also accepts that the soul is also seen as that “part” of man which likens him most to God, being his spiritual aspect. The soul clearly gives life to the body, and it is accepted that when God breathed into the lifeless clay that he had moulded, it became a “living soul” (Genesis 2:7).

    That is the point I thought Lewis had captured: that our life and identity come from our souls, and our bodies are the physical manifestation of these, which are prior to it, as it were. Certainly the soul endures after death while the body dies, if only for a time.

    But please let me think further on this…. I am no philosopher!



  3. Father,

    The idea that the soul and the body are two different substances (in the Aristotelian sense) would seem to lie behind the two equal and opposite dualistic misconceptions: that the soul is a “ghost” inhabiting a body; or that the soul “possesses” a body. I think that the informal language of the catechism is used to dodge these two problems, but without bringing in the heavy philosophical machinery. The trouble is that if this informality is taken too literally it can lead to problems down the line.

    But perhaps we can avoid the philosophy here? If I may be permitted to offer an alternative exegesis of this passage, I think that this is a lovely little example of the genius of the Roman Rite. The “domine non sum dignus” is obviously based on the scriptural passage of the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant. In this latter, the literal meaning of the “healing” referred to is a physical healing; the centurion wishes his servant restored to good health. But, of course, the spiritual interpretation that builds upon this literal meaning goes deeper, into the healing of the “total person” body & soul.

    When we say “domine non sum dignus…” in the mass, we are reminded of the scriptural passage and its literal meaning; we are to take that as a given. The words of the mass then take us further into the meaning of scripture; we are reminded that our souls need healing in addition to our bodies. So what we get in the missal text is both; a remeniscence of the healing of the body and an explicit statement on the healing of the soul.

    And in this month of the holy souls, let us not forget that it is the souls of the faithful departed that are purged and healed in purgatory; their bodies lie in the grave before the general resurrection.


  4. I can see why you might think that the Catechism (CCC) may be dodging the issue, and being catechism rather than an older style manual of theology that is also understandable: it cannot treat every topic exhaustively.

    That said, the CCC seems to want to avoid precisely this problem of the two “substances” that you mention. For a little further on it says, “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (# 365) So the body is intrinsic to human nature, though in a sense it is mediate – the soul is created directly by God while the body is created through the mediation of the parents. Nevertheless, there is only one human nature.

    Also of interest is that immediately after death we enter upon particular judgement, that is we are judged and (for those in the state of grace) enter into the presence of God. Thus it is our souls that are judged, for what they have done in the body. Not our souls as something distinct from ourselves per se, of course: our souls ARE us.

    You are spot on to look to the liturgy to find what we believe evidenced in the content of our prayer. However, I read the very example you gave somewhat differently. Indeed we are meant to recall the scriptural scene alluded to, and then move forward from it in the context of Mass. You read this prayer at Mass before Communion, if I have read you right, as encompassing the original incident as a healing of the body, and then adding to it the Church’s reminder that we need also to seek healing for our souls.

    Yet I think that to restrict the gospel incident to a merely physical healing is too narrow a reading. Rather than balancing it with reference to the soul, the Church is, in the prayer before Communion, interpreting that Gospel incident, not adding something to it. That is, the girl’s soul was healed, the Church is telling us, and therefore also her body. So too, if our souls are healed, then the totality of our persons is healed. If our souls are the life principle of our bodies, then the restoration of full life to the soul must have an effect on the body, if only eternally, according to God’s will.

    That is why the translation of the previous Missal was not such a bad one, though it was not faithful totally to the Latin original: “I shall be healed”. It is not our bodies alone we seek healing for, but the whole person, the “I”. In the revised translation the Church makes clear that this “I” is most truly found in the soul, as something that encompasses the body, and not in the body alone.


  5. Dear Fr. Hugh,

    Thank you for such a fascinating reflection. Perhaps the genius of the Roman Rite rather lies in its ability to provoke such discussions!

    And thank you for your blog in general – this really is one of the gems of the catholic blogosphere.


    1. Thank YOU. Usually I find that a healthy discussion and presentation of arguments is an occasion for learning more, not only in an informational sense but also in what people value and prioritise. What is legitimately important to others I need to comprehend and incorporate.

      A thank you also for your kind words about the blog. It is a small attempt to light a candle rather than curse any darkness!



  6. Owen (convert & former Pentecostal minister from Canada) here to say wonderful post and post post discussion. I was so grateful for this change from “I” to “soul” and find it not restrictive but liberating – considering restrictive in a different sense. I, yes, is too general whereas soul is specific, can’t miss that now we are talking about what is eternal, what rightly judged, what receives grace. Soul moves me out of the temporal and general realm into the eternal and specific. I find this specificity liberating.

    God bless you Father.


    1. Dear Owen,

      A belated welcome! Thank you for your comment which I found very cheering, because you got what was being intended. Indeed you made a point I failed to: the use of such words as “soul” takes us, if only briefly, out of the temporal and into the eternal. After all it is the eternal that is present at Mass, and the more we are present to it the more we can benefit and be uplifted. Bless you!


  7. Dear Father,

    This is indeed and inspiring post that has generated an interesting discussion. I am writing an essay on CCC 365 – the unity of body and soul, and permit me to quote your discussion on this subject.

    The new translation has opened much discussion and offered us a much deeper insight into our faith. ‘Anima’ means more than just ‘soul’ and when we ‘my soul shall be healed’, we are accepting a healing that touches our core – because the soul refers to the innermost aspect of man by which we are in God’s image.

    Blessings. Perviz


    1. Salve Perviz!

      It is gratifying to hear that you found much that was useful in the discussion here. I imagine every Catholic blogger who writes from the impulse of faith would seek to be similarly helpful. If you can use anything from the discussion here in your essay, please do. I hope that the writing of your essay will deepen your knowledge and love of the faith, the Church and its head, Jesus Christ.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.